Hunting the Russian Bear - Why they're after Putin
The Brits' beef with Putin also has to do with oil and gas. The Russian seizure of British oil assets in Siberia is being cited by free-market types as evidence that Putin is moving toward "corporatism," but is this any more "corporatist" than legislation currently on the books in the U.S. that forbids foreign ownership of key industries such as airlines and telecommunications? The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
Who can forget the Dubai port-management brouhaha, when Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike demagogued the issue to score political points by conjuring the alleged threat posed by a Middle Eastern-based company having anything to do with maintaining our – rapidly decaying – "vital" infrastructure? The Dubai episode inaugurated a crackdown by U.S. regulators and inspired a host of economically disastrous yet politically popular measures in Congress that confirm "corporatism" is on the march in Washington at least as much as it is in Moscow. Remember when Chinese investors sought to buy out the oil company Unocal? The uproar was deafening, and the deal was scotched. So it turns out that British Petroleum is no more badly treated in Russia than Chinese-owned CNOOC Ltd. is in the U.S. – which, come to think of it, is perhaps why the Brits are so irked.
According to the mainstream news media's pampered pet pundits, Russian President Vladimir Putin is the reincarnation of Josef Stalin, and Russia under his rule is rapidly "backsliding" into "authoritarianism." According to Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin and now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, the resurgent Russian military is about to take out its neighbors and seal a reestablished Warsaw Pact in the blood of Georgian, Ukrainian, and possibly even Polish innocents. The British, in particular, have been hyping this "new Cold War" narrative for all it's worth – which, when it comes right down to it, isn't very much.
Is Russia embarked on a return to authoritarianism? The answer has to be an unequivocal no. After all, Putin has not closed down a single Russian "dissident" media outlet – instead, like their counterparts in the U.S., Russian media barons, at the head of vast corporate conglomerates, have bought up the major television networks and newspapers and imposed a Fox News-like unanimity on correspondents and pundits alike. While this may make for boring television and patently predictable punditry, it doesn't make Russia a fascist state, as all too many people who ought to know better are trying to imply.
I had to laugh when I heard the thrilling news that "hundreds of people" marched through the streets of St. Petersburg recently to protest Putin's supposedly repressive regime. This was one of a series of "dissidents' marches" being held by the "opposition" – a seriocomic coalition of chess champion Gary Kasparov and neo-fascist crackpot Eduard Limonov. Hundreds, eh? Hundreds of thousands of antiwar marchers over the years protesting America's policy in Iraq have failed to garner as much publicity as this little band did in record time – now isn't that odd?
Odder still is the nature of the "opposition" itself: Limonov is a punk-rock skinhead "idol" and sometime novelist whose crazed views are best summed up by his National Bolshevik Party's graphic incorporation of Soviet and Nazi symbols to create the single most repulsive party emblem in all of recorded history. Kasparov, aside from his well-known exploits in the game of chess, is a pawn of American neoconservatives: his real constituency isn't in Russia, where he remains an obscure political figure, but in Washington, D.C., where he stands amid such neocon luminaries as Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and James Woolsey as a member of the Center for Security Policy. The Center is a major neocon propaganda outfit headed by longtime neocon activist Frank Gaffney, whose name is virtually synonymous with the military-industrial complex. Kasparov served on the Center's National Security Advisory Council along with Woolsey.
The neocons, by the way, are deeply committed to the Chechen cause and have been in the vanguard of the movement to demonize Putin as a latter-day Stalin: the list of endorsers of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya replicates the seating arrangements at the front table at an American Enterprise Institute awards dinner. It was Richard Perle, you'll recall, who averred that Russia ought to be expelled from the G-8 on account of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's arrest for crimes ranging from embezzlement to conspiracy to commit murder.
The neocons have allied themselves with the Russian oligarchs, who amassed fantastic wealth in post-communist Russia by means that might meet the approval of Tony Soprano, not the Better Business Bureau. These oligarchs seethe at their expulsion as they plot from abroad to return the country to their clutches. For years now, an unsavory popular front of Chechen terrorists, neoconservative hawks, and shady Russian oligarchs wearing Moss Lipow dark sunglasses and gobs of gold chains has massed at the gates of Moscow, demanding the ouster of the czar – and the clamor has now been taken up by Western governments. "It would be funny if it wasn't so sad" was Putin's response to the U.S. insistence that Poland and Czechoslovakia put anti-missile technology in place in order to guard against the supposed "threat" from an attack… launched by Iran. The joke is that the Iranians don't have missiles that can reach either Warsaw or Prague. To pretend that these anti-missile systems are aimed at an "enemy" other than Russia is the measure of the West's disdain for Putin: like a schoolyard bully who "accidentally" shoves his victims on the playground, they don't even bother to convincingly conceal their belligerence.
Putin's counterproposal to help set up a missile-interception system in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan is a deft deflection of Western claims that Putin poses a renewed Russian threat to the security of Europe. If the U.S. and Britain are genuinely concerned about a possible Iranian strike at the former Eastern bloc, then they'll sign on to Putin's generous offer. Their hesitation, one has to conclude, speaks volumes about their real motives for putting up the missile shield in the first place. Just as the demonstrators in the streets of Russian cities are seemingly intent on provoking the Russian police into a violent response, so the Western powers – alarmed at the rise of Putin on the world stage as the Americans' chief antagonist and most eloquent critic – are engaged in a series of large-scale provocations, including but not limited to the Eastern European missile shield.
Another irritant to Russia's increasingly fractious relations with the West is the issue of Kosovo's independence. Again, the Western love of double standards comes into play here, with Kosovo's alleged "right" to nationhood being upheld by an American president while the corresponding "right" of Russian-speaking (or pro-Russian) areas of the former Soviet Union, such as Abkhazia and the Transdniester Republic, to independence goes unrecognized by the West.
The real evidence, however, of just how badly relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated is the strange case of Alexander Litvinenko and the mystery surrounding his death. Having covered this subject at length in previous columns, I won't elaborate on the arcane technical and other details of this downright weird episode, which seems like a story straight out of a Hollywood thriller, except to say that the "official" version of how Litvinenko came to be poisoned by a rare radioactive substance, polonium-210, stinks to high heaven.
This narrative, which holds that Litvinenko was targeted by the KGB because of his alleged status as a Russian "dissident" living in exile in London, doesn't hold up under even the most forgiving scrutiny. After all, why kill him with a rare and easily traced substance – and with such an overdose that the cost alone would seem to rule out this method – when a simple shot in the back of the head would suffice? The sheer amount of disinformation and propagandistic nonsense dished out by the British tabloids alone on the subject probably consumed enough paper to deforest half of South America. Nor is the British indictment of Andrei Lugovoi enough to paper over the huge holes in the "official" story. Lugovoi, at any rate, is fighting back, with revelations that the Brits and Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky tried to recruit him to root out the dirt on Putin. In any case, the Litvinenko affair emanates the aura of a gigantic, somewhat sinister scam, perhaps involving the smuggling of polonium and the involvement of Islamic terrorist cells associated with the Chechens. What ought to worry us is that someone was possibly trying to assemble a "dirty bomb" of the type Jose Padilla was accused of masterminding – in the heart of London.
There seems little doubt the color-coded "revolutions," with Western material and moral support, targeted the former Soviet "near abroad" and aimed at reducing Russian influence and putting Putin on the defensive. The construction of a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe was the last straw. What had been primarily a propaganda campaign aimed at the Kremlin has now taken a decidedly military turn, one that bodes ill for the future and the cause of peace. There are those who never reconciled themselves to the end of the Cold War – that crucible in which the pestilential sect known as the neoconservatives was born and raised – and it seems a supreme effort is being made to revive it.
Today we hear endless stories about how the Russian leader and his country pose a threat to Western interests: Russia is "authoritarian," newly aggressive, "anti-Semitic," and, yes, even "homophobic." As the memory of 9/11 fades and the meaning of that historic disaster is increasingly disputed, the War Party needs fresh enemies whose alleged evil will thrill the popular imagination and satiate their hunger for villainy. Putin, flush with oil money and eager to regain Russia's place in the sun, fits the bill nicely. The truth is more prosaic. Putin is no dictator, and Russia, far from backsliding into neo-communism, is in a better position than ever to create a middle-class-based liberal democracy with the rule of law roughly comparable to the system that prevails in the West. The general rise in the Russian standard of living, after a catastrophic post-communist decline, puts a brake on any backward-looking authoritarian movement (neo-communist or otherwise) making appreciable progress.
That this occurred under Putin is the reason for the Russian president's enormous popularity and accounts for the marginalization of his opponents. As much as Western liberals and neocons loathe Putin and the prospect of a resurgent Russia, it doesn't look like regime change is on the agenda in the former Soviet Union, in spite of millions being poured into the region by Western governments to aid the opposition. The endless provocations aimed at the Kremlin will only have the effect of irritating the Russian bear – and creating yet more anti-American and anti-Western sentiment. As if we don't have enough of that already…
Russia has come a long way from being the land of the gulags, and it is never going to go back to that – not unless the West succeeds in looting that country, once again, and creating a Russian version of the Weimar Republic. This is precisely why lunatics of Eduard Limonov's ilk have joined the opposition as its noisiest and most visible wing – because the rise of Putin, who created order out of mafia-inspired chaos, short-circuited the Weimar Russia scenario and diverted the Russians down a different path.
Russian president lashes out at West
Vladimir Putin called his critics foreign-funded "jackals" and accused the West of meddling in Russian politics in a scathing speech Wednesday meant to drum up support for the main pro-Kremlin party. The thunderous attack came as Russia heads toward Dec. 2 parliamentary elections that have turned into a plebiscite on Putin and whether he should retain power after stepping down as president next year after two consecutive terms. Thousands of flag-waving supporters who packed a Moscow sports arena for the speech joined in chants urging Putin to remain Russia's "national leader." It isn't clear what formal title he might hold, but he heads the ticket of the dominant United Russia party and has suggested he could become prime minister. Opinion surveys suggest the party will win two-thirds of the votes and a crushing 80 percent of the lower house of parliament's 450 seats. With approval ratings exceeding 70 percent, Putin cast the election as a black-and-white choice between the current economic boom and the poverty and political chaos of the 1990s — doomsday rhetoric clearly aimed at getting his supporters to the polls.
"Nothing is predetermined at all," a grim-faced Putin said. "Stability and peace on our land have not fallen from the skies; they haven't yet become absolutely, automatically secured." Addressing about 5,000 backers at the rally, which blended elements of a Soviet-era Communist Party congress with the raucous enthusiasm of an American political convention, Putin suggested his political opponents are working for Russia's Western adversaries. "Regrettably, there are those inside the country who feed off foreign embassies like jackals and count on support of foreign funds and governments, and not their own people," Putin said. He accused unidentified Russians of planning mass street protests, like those that helped usher in pro-Western governments in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004. "Now, they're going to take to the streets. They have learned from Western experts and have received some training in neighboring (ex-Soviet) republics. And now they are going to stage provocations here," he said. Putin seemed to refer to anti-Kremlin demonstrations planned for this weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Police have used force to break up several marches and demonstrations, beating and detaining dozens of protesters. Putin, whose nearly eight years in power coincided with rising energy prices, has repeatedly charged that the West wants Russia weak and compliant.
"Those who confront us don't want our plan to succeed," he said. "They have different plans for Russia. They need a weak and ill state, they need a disoriented and divided society in order to do their deeds behind its back." Without naming names, Putin railed against his liberal, pro-business and Communist opponents, raising the specter of the economic and political uncertainty that preceded and followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. "If these gentlemen come back to power, they will again cheat people and fill their pockets," he said. "They want to restore an oligarchic regime, based on corruption and lies."
After his speech, the normally reserved president plunged into the crowd, shaking hands and kissing a woman. The crowd, consisting mainly of young people, responded with chants of "Russia! Putin!" Some blew horns and jumped in excitement. With the election nearing, Putin has made a string of appearances at carefully staged events where speakers have emphasized his indispensability as a leader. The campaign has drawn heavily on imagery from the Soviet and czarist eras, periods that still evoke feelings of pride in Russians despite their history of bloodshed and oppression. But there is also an effort to appeal to a new generation of Russians with few memories of the country's past struggles. The scenes in the grandstand at Wednesday's rally sometimes resembled those of a rowdy soccer game. Nostalgic Soviet-era bands mixed on stage with young performers, including a girl group in miniskirts who sang "I want someone like Putin." Elderly women wore blue United Russia T-shirts. A young man had "Russia" painted on his shaved head, and a woman sported "Putin" written by lipstick on her cheek. Many had faces painted with bands of white, blue and red — the colors of the national flag and the United Russia party.
The speech seemed intended to transfer some of Putin's popularity to United Russia, which controls parliament but stirs few passions among voters. An overwhelming victory for United Russia, which is all but assured given the Kremlin's tight control over the media and government, would limit the clout of his successor — and possibly lay the groundwork for Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 or sooner. Apart from United Russia, only the Communists seem certain to clear the minimum threshold for getting seats in parliament — 7 percent of the total vote. But the Kremlin is leaving little to chance. Two top liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, have complained of what they call official intimidation and harassment.
Some Putin supporters have called for rewriting the constitution to allow him to stay on as president. He has promised to step down, but says he will continue to play a role in Russia and has not ruled out a presidential bid in the future. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told foreign reporters Tuesday that Putin wouldn't seek a position not envisaged by the constitution, but said a new parliament could change the law. He said portraying the vote as a referendum on Putin's policy was a campaign tactic, not a maneuver to change the government structure. A parade of speakers preceded Putin to the stage Wednesday. Rifle designer Mikhail Kalashnikov and Olympic figure-skating champion Irina Rodnina both urged voters to back United Russia and showered Putin with praise. "We athletes call him our senior coach," Rodnina told the rally. "With him, we will always win." Putin's former teacher, Vera Gurevich, said in a taped address that Putin was an "extremely decent" person who would step down as he pledged. "But he must stay in politics to complete the work he started to do," she said from her home in St. Petersburg.